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Choosing the Right Thermometer

Thermometer Buying Guide

Whether it's for a medical facility, school, or at home, a reliable thermometer is an important tool to monitor health. Knowing how to choose a thermometer for your needs can help with the proper diagnosis of illnesses and identification of symptoms.

Finding a suitable thermometer involves thinking about who will use it, which factors you prioritize, and where you will use it. As you learn more about what is the best kind of thermometer, you can get ready for general diagnostics, cold and flu season, or year-round bugs.

Different Types of Thermometers

When you look through this thermometer buying guide, think about which type of thermometer suits your usage needs. All the options listed are compact and convenient, fitting easily into a home healthcare bag or first aid kit. There are several options to compare.

Digital Stick Thermometers

Almost every medical facility, home, and school across the United States has a digital stick thermometer. They are one of the most frequently used pieces of diagnostic equipment, both in medical settings and homes. It identifies the temperature through direct contact with the inside of the mouth or rectum. Some benefits of a digital stick thermometer include:

  • Speedy reports as most thermometers report a temperature in less than a minute
  • Budget-friendly option that makes it easy to stock up
  • Easy for non-medical professionals to use

On the downside, digital stick thermometers are not the ideal solution in some situations. In a fast-paced environment where an individual needs to take many temperatures in a row, the results of the digital stick thermometer may not be fast enough to keep the line moving. Similarly, since the thermometer comes into direct contact with the mouth or rectum, it is not possible to use with multiple patients without proper thermometer sheaths or probe covers. Sheaths and probe covers are recommended for use with more than one patient, which can add to the cost of care.

Infrared Thermometers

Consider infrared options while deciding how to choose a thermometer. Infrared thermometers are a type of non contact thermometer, they figure out the skin temperature by measuring the heat that comes off of the body. They are fairly easy to use, often simply requiring that you point the thermometer at the individual's forehead or wrist to get their temperature. Touch Free thermometers are ideal for fast screening of several people. Other benefits include:

  • Speedy reports, often measuring an individual's temperature in just a few seconds
  • Do not require direct contact, keeping everyone safer and healthier
  • Doesn't require sheaths or covers for multiple users, reducing cost of use

One question that often comes up when people are comparing these options is, "What kind of thermometer is most accurate?" Both digital stick and infrared options are highly accurate and meet ASTM International standards. Where they differ is in the price. A digital stick thermometer is an affordable option for many, infrared thermometers are often a bit more expensive.

Mercury and Galinstan Thermometers

Although mercury thermometers were once the mainstay for American homes and clinics, they have mainly been removed from use. Labs no longer calibrate mercury thermometers, leaving manufacturers with no option but to stop making them. This is due to safety issues. Instead of mercury, manufacturers now make both oral and rectal thermometers using Galinstan, a gallium-indium-tin alloy that behaves similarly to traditional mercury. You can also get the same accuracy and ease of use with a digital stick or infrared thermometer.

Digital Ear Thermometers

Digital ear thermometers, also known as Tympanic thermometers use infrared technology to provide fast, accurate readings. They are easy to use but do need to be positioned correctly. Some models feature last reading memory, fever alarms and automatically turn off when not in use. Some digital ear thermometers require specialized probe covers, which makes them an ideal option for infection control. 

Other Thermometer Types

Other options that are not as widely available include temperature strips, disposable thermometers, and pacifier thermometers. Forehead strips measure temperatures in 2-degree increments, so they may not be as precise as other options. Disposable single patient thermometers are ideal for situations where the patient might be highly contagious, so you leave the thermometer with them and it gets disposed of after use. They are also useful when part of patient self-management kits. Temple Touch or touch free thermometers are suitable for infants, especially to not disturb them while sleeping.

Methods of Taking a Temperature

Another factor to consider while figuring out what kind of thermometer is most accurate is how you prefer to take a temperature. There are several options, including oral, rectal, forehead, and axillary.

Oral thermometers are the most widely available, as nearly every digital stick thermometer accommodates this method. This is an easy choice for older children and adults who do not mind sitting and waiting for results. If purchasing for commercial use, make sure to choose one with disposable probes or sheaths.

You cannot take a rectal temperature with every digital stick thermometer, so it's important to choose one marked for rectal use. Those with flexible tips are unlikely to be suitable for rectal temperature taking.

Axillary temperature taking is an accurate and reliable option, especially for children three and younger. Some digital stick thermometers work for axillary temperature taking, and many non touch thermometers can measure the temperature via the ear.

Forehead thermometer strips and infrared thermometers can measure the forehead temperature accurately. However, note that strips require more analysis than thermometers with digital displays.

Speed of Temperature Report

While considering how to choose a thermometer, think about how much speed is a priority to you. This comes down to the setting and the preferences of each individual user. In some settings, speed is the top priority. Restaurants, concerts, and stores that require temperature checks prior to entry often prioritize speed to avoid delays and long lines. Parents of very young children are also likely to put speed as a top priority since children tend to cry or pull away when uncomfortable. In certain medical settings, such as emergency rooms, time is essential, and speed is often the most important factor. Those working in labor and delivery might prefer a fast thermometer for use on newborns as part of their women's health kit.

In most other environments, speed isn't as important as other factors. Those shopping for at-home use or a general practitioner's office might not mind waiting a few extra seconds for a temperature reading. A digital stick thermometer runs about the same speed as a blood pressure monitoring device in a general practitioner's office, establishing an easy flow of diagnostic tests in an appointment.

Regardless of where you fall on this spectrum, compare average speeds across different temperature models. For digital stick thermometers, some take more than a minute to get an accurate reading. On the other end of the scale, some have a report in fewer than 10 seconds. Infrared models are considerably faster, with most offering results instantly or in fewer than three seconds.

Levels of Accuracy and Detail

In terms of what kind of thermometer is most accurate, the differences between thermometers are negligible. ASTM has strict accuracy standards for each type of thermometer, giving users peace of mind as they decide which type of thermometer to buy.

There are some differences in the level of detail provided by each thermometer. Forehead temperature strips are the least detailed option. When applied to an individual's forehead, the heat of their skin lights up the strip to show the temperature. Since the strips measure temperature in 2-degree intervals, there is some estimation involved. Most digital stick and infrared thermometers go to the 10ths place. This is suitable for most people and applications. Those using a thermometer to track their basal body temperature for fertility purposes often prefer thermometers that go to the hundredths place.

Ease of Use

Across the board, thermometers are easy to use. However, some thermometers covered in thermometer buying guides have additional features that help healthcare workers, parents, and caretakers get a more accurate temperature. Users often benefit from features like:

  • Insertion guide: This is important for rectal thermometers. Indicators show users how far to insert the thermometer to keep their baby safe.
  • Beeps or other indicators: While some thermometers require you to wait a specific amount of time before checking the readout, others beep to let you know that the measurement is complete. This is a convenient feature for medical professionals, parents, and others.
  • Memory: A memory feature on a thermometer tracks past temperature readings, helping users determine whether a temperature is dropping or getting worse.
  • Age adjustments: A temperature that might be safe for one group could require emergency care in another group. Some temperatures allow you to indicate the user's age to provide a more accurate readout.

There are many reliable and easy-to-use thermometers available at Hopkins Medical Products®. All options we sell adhere to ASTM and FDA standards and are clinical medical device grade. By considering who will use the thermometer where you will use it, and what features matter most, you can determine what is the best kind of thermometer for your needs.

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